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Nine years later, no answers in Jeffco Subway killings

Published February 13, 2009 at 12:05 a.m.

It was the night before Valentine's Day and 16-year-old Stephanie Hart Grizzell was in her bedroom doing algebra.

Wasn't she?

Hours later, when Stephanie's mother, Kelly Grizzell, learned the truth, her notion of reality - "I never lost anybody in my life" - was forever changed.

As it would be for Wendy Kunselman, the mother of Steph anie's boyfriend, Nick Kunselman. Grief made her flee Colorado for a tiny Nebraska town.

About 12:45 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2000, "Steph and Nick" were found dead in a Subway sandwich shop at 6768 W. Coal Mine Ave. Nick, just a month shy of 16, had been working at the shop for about a month. The two had been shot. No one has been arrested.

For investigators, each anniversary of the crime, which happened just 10 months and a few blocks away from the Columbine High School killings, brings hope that a new lead may come. For two mothers, that hope is mixed with a grief that deepens each February. As Kunselman puts it, "Valentine's Day is ruined forever."

Plenty of theories

There are plenty of theories about the crime. Was it drug-related? Rumors were rife that the area near the Subway shop was a magnet for drug activity.

Was somebody jealous of the young couple?

Or - this is the theory Grizzell goes back to most - were the murders committed by outsiders, "crazy people" attracted by the national attention of the Columbine massacre?

Publicly, investigators rule out nothing. The case is still active. Unlike cold cases, where leads dry up, new tips arrive with each anniversary.

Investigators hope that happens this weekend, too.

"We are confident somebody knows who the killer is," says lead investigator Derek Gibson of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

"Sometimes, if there's fear involved, time can be on your side. It's not certain that fear is a factor in this case, but it will be nine years on Saturday, and maybe enough time has passed that a person or people who have valid information - maybe they're not so afraid anymore - maybe they'll be bold enough to come forward."

The case lacks witnesses. There are two composite drawings of a possible suspect. There have been hundreds of interviews of students, neighbors, family.

And two mothers wait. Wendy Kunselman, 46, has mostly avoided the media.

Kelly Grizzell, 46, sends out media alerts, trying to keep the case in the public eye.

"I dread February, even after nine years," she says. "I hope we get an answer this year. I realize it's not going to bring Steph or Nick back, but hopefully it's going to prevent this person from doing it to other people."

Several years ago, she and Stephanie's stepdad divorced. Although they are good friends now, she says the strain of her daughter's death and her paralyzing depression destroyed the marriage.

"It's hard," she says, "to be married to somebody who can't get up in the morning."

Couple had dreams

Stephanie wasn't doing homework that Valentine's eve; she had sneaked out to see Nick.

That much was clear when Kelly Grizzell woke at 6 a.m. and found her daughter gone. Annoyed and alarmed, she dressed hastily, telling herself that maybe Stephanie went to make Nick a Valentine's Day breakfast.

When her only child had met Nick, a classmate, several years before, Grizzell cautiously approved. The two were part of a big group; they played guitar together. Steph was a good kid; she was on the swim team and liked art and writing.

Nick wanted to be a rock star, his mother said. Although he was living mainly with his father, Kunselman had a chance to see her son and Stephanie together, and she approved. "They were very much in love, they felt they were soulmates. They planned on staying together forever.

"And now they are."

But Grizzell had grown concerned. She warned Stephanie not to visit Nick at his new Subway job; she thought it was a distraction, that Stephanie's school work was suffering. She also knew that Stephanie had used pot and that the teens planned a road trip for the following summer. "They knew it never would have been approved by me, but they had their little dream," Grizzell said.

As she got ready to go looking for her daughter that morning, Grizzell flipped on the TV.

That's how she heard of the double homicide at the local Subway shop: "They started panning with the cameras, and there was Steph's car in the parking lot. That's how I was informed. . . . I wish the sheriff's department had come to my house."

Friends are reminders

Gibson, who joined the case in late 2007, says it's not possible to verify Grizzell's account. "But I can tell you that absolutely is not this department's practice."

Wendy Kunselman lives in a small town of 500, "a better place to get my life back together."

Kelly Grizzell lives just a few miles from where her daughter died. She said she conquered her depression about four years ago.

"I knew I could never help anyone else if I couldn't pull myself out of it," she said.

To this day, friends of "Steph and Nick" drop by regularly. Now in their mid 20s, they are older versions of the happy-go-lucky kids who appear in the scores of photos that Grizzell still displays.

One of those friends is Nicole Schlieve, now 27. On Valentine's night, Nick and Steph were planning to join the group to celebrate.

"We all hung out together, all the time," Schlieve said. "It was a big group - 10, 11 of us."

She initially thought drugs might have played a role in the crime. Now? "I do honestly not think it was drug-related. I was really close with Stephanie. If there was a drug-related issue (with her) I would have seen it."

Now, each Valentine's Day, two mothers hope for answers. If the case is solved, says Wendy Kunselman, "It will never take away the pain, but it would make a lot of difference, being able to let it rest."

And Kelly Grizzell thinks about the life Steph and Nick will never have.

"I think they were definitely soulmates," she says. "But I hope she wouldn't have gotten married 'til they got older.

"It would have been nice if they were able to grow up a little more together and make that come true."

The search

The investigation into the deaths of Stephanie Hart Grizzell and Nick Kunselman is still active. Unlike cold cases, where leads dry up, new tips arrive with each anniversary. The case lacks witnesses, but here are two composite drawings of a possible suspect.

* Tips: If you have any information regarding the case, investigators ask that you call the Jefferson County tip line at 303-271-5612.

* Reward: A $2,000 reward is being offered through the Crime Stoppers network.

Unsolved murders

Here is a sampling of the higher-profile unsolved murders in the metro area since 2000:

* Aug. 27, 2008: Adams County Assistant District Attorney Sean May, 37, is found shot to death in his backyard in north Denver. An autopsy reveals May was killed execution-style.

* Aug. 7, 2003: Witnesses said a motorist ran down Maria A. Marmolejo-Neri, 25, as she was walking with her 3-year-old daughter, Wendy Morales-Marmolejo, in an alley in the 1900 block of South Corona Street south of East Jewell Avenue. According to witnesses, the driver circled a couple of blocks then ran over Marmolejo-Neri a second time and plowed into the back of her daughter as she stood near her mother.

* Jan. 27, 2002: Two employees and a rising young bowler are found shot to death at the AMF Broadway Lanes in Littleton after it had closed for the night. The victims were James Springer, 29, of Centennial; Erin Golla, 26, of Englewood; and Robert Zajac, 23, of Denver.

* Nov. 20, 2000: Xavier Walker, 16, is shot in Falcon Park in Montbello after an altercation involving a number of people. Someone who was not involved in the fight fired into the crowd, killing Walker and wounding a 17-year-old boy.

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